Holidays are always a challenge, but persuading a teenage boy to embark on a fun outdoor adventure with only his mother for company is frankly terrifying. He’s as likely to greet the prospect with enthusiasm as he is to pick up a wet towel.
And there is a new problem when it comes to travelling with teenagers: they are constantly, thanks to technology, somewhere else. Screens provide instant gratification and adventure, so it makes no difference whether a child is in the Serengeti or on a London bus – they are likely to be lost in virtual reality. And it is a hard act for reality to follow. I wanted my 15-year-old son Jesse to wake up to the moment, to fully appreciate a new place, new experiences. So we decided to go somewhere we had never been: Malaysia.
The holiday was going swimmingly until I caused a minor terrorist alert and was detained and questioned by police. Nothing embarrassing for a teenager there …
This happened before we’d even got on the plane at Heathrow. It was the fault of a very small penknife, which was given to me by a child in Alaska and had lain at the bottom of my rucksack ever since. Apparently it had a “lockable” blade, which made it a potentially lethal weapon – although neither myself nor the police could work out how to open the wretched thing, let alone stab anyone with it.
I am sympathetic with the need for security measures and accept my guilt. However, I was alarmed by an email from the Daily Mail asking for confirmation of the incident within an hour of it happening. Jesse was mortified by the whole event.
We arrived at Kuala Lumpur during an electric storm (Jesse taking time out from his fourth movie to tell me in detail what would happen if we got hit), then switched to an hour-long domestic flight to Terengganu, which overlooks the South China Sea on the east side of the Malay Peninsula.
We were given the New Straits Times, which I forced Jesse to read to get a feel for the culture. He was most engaged by an article about burgers. The best-seller in Malaysia is “the prosperity oblong chicken burger”. Apparently, when piled with toppings, oblong is easier for small-mouthed folk.
Our arrival was dominated by a recording of hauntingly sad music played on a primitive wind instrument. As my jet-lagged eyes welled up, Jesse pointed out it was “Three Blind Mice” – which, bizarrely, it was – and that I needed to get a grip.
We were driven to Tanjong Jara, a beautifully designed resort with wooden pagodas and cerulean pools hidden among coconut trees and gorgeous flowering plants, beside a long sandy beach.
The most immediately striking thing about Malaysia is the people. A huge range of backgrounds, religions and cultures seems to have created a society with a gentle, courteous and beautiful population. Immersing himself in the culture, Jesse ordered spaghetti bolognese and Coke from room service. As the sun blazed through the coconut trees, illuminating riotously plumaged birds and hibiscus flowers, he chilled on the vast bed in front of the vast TV:
“Yeah, it’s alright Malaysia. So far.”
When I suggested we unpack, we engaged in an interesting debate:
“OK. Let’s unpack.”
“No. I leave it in the suitcase otherwise we just have to pack up when we leave.”
“No. Trust me – that’s the way I do it. Sorry I can’t hear the TV – can you unpack a bit quieter?”
I eventually managed to tear him away to the infinity pool.
It was a gorgeous temperature, with swallows dipping in and out and the sea only yards away. He absolutely loved it and it brought out the holiday spirit in us both.
People of very different nationalities were sunbathing round the pool. Almost all of them were reading either The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo or My Sister’s Keeper.
It struck me that we pay a fortune to travel to other countries, only to immerse ourselves in the altogether different worlds of various novels. Is that really so different from diving into a fantasy screen game?
At night we slept wonderfully – under big old-fashioned fans listening to jungle noises and the odd thunk of falling coconuts. We would then wake up and drag ourselves a few yards to the sun loungers to go to sleep again. Holidays so often involve travelling across the world to spend as much time unconscious as possible. This actually makes total sense to anyone undergoing puberty, for whom finding your inner narcoleptic is right up there with Top Gear.
We became so apathetic we kept saying words like “gym” and “tennis” without actually moving. Jetlag became our best friend: “It’s about five in the morning for me, I can’t.”
Jesse discovered a love of Malaysian (virgin) piña coladas and nachos. Amazingly, he could hear “Do you want a piña colada?” through his headphones, but not “Pull up your trousers – you look ridiculous.”
Travelling alone with your child can be a revelation. I hadn’t previously known that “sagging” – wearing trousers round the knees like an over-full nappy – is an act of solidarity with prisoners who have their belts taken off them. Why does that not fill me with maternal pride? It just doesn’t seem the same as wearing a “Free Mandela” T-shirt.
Tanjong Jara is one of the YTL group’s resorts, which are renowned for their spa treatments. I have never been remotely interested in massage, but decided to give it a go, choosing a head massage on the basis it would be over quickest.
It completely blew my mind. It involved pressure points and eucalyptus and citronella oil, and a tiny woman with fingers like David Beckham’s legs. I felt incredible. All of life suddenly seemed calm and clear.
I decided not only to subject myself to as many treatments as possible, but also to get Jesse to have a go. He was aghast – as though I were encouraging him to visit a prostitute. But, after the delirious self-consciousness at having to undress to underpants already familiar to the resort thanks to sagging (the irony was lost on him), he endured a 45-minute back massage with a male masseur. When interrogated by his pushy mother, he grinned and declared it “Alright – yeah sick”. This, believe me, is praise indeed.
One of the strangest things that happened was a misunderstanding that we were a couple, not mother and son. Consequently, we were treated to absurdly romantic but slightly inappropriate dinners – in isolated tents on beaches, or in pagodas, normally lit by candles, with rose petals everywhere and musicians playing love songs. Jesse looked traumatised, as if he had been asked to clean his room.
We signed up to various trips on offer: a cruise up the Marang river, a cookery class and, best of all, a trip to a deserted island called Tenggol. We travelled there by boat with other guests, including a gorgeous French family with small children, and after a barbecue lunch on the beach, some of us went snorkelling and others diving.
Cartoons such as Finding Nemo have obviously set a high bar – but, thankfully, reality lived up to Jesse’s expectations. There were incredible fish everywhere you turned, and you could hitch rides on benign, laid-back turtles.
Then came a nerve-racking incident. The dive boat returned with one of the divers suffering badly from decompression sickness. We initially thought it was the father of the French family and Jesse was immediately concerned that the children should not witness anything distressing. He took them to play among the rocks, even letting them use his camera. It struck me that it is so easy to think teenagers have become insensitive, when in fact they have just become paralysingly sensitive.
Later we dined with the French family, which involved playing silly children’s games and lots of joke-telling and laughter. Marie, the mother, pointed out that our children had stopped rushing back to the nearest screens and started seeking activities in the fresh air.
Also, I had come to realise that when Jesse speaks – unsolicited – it is worth listening. The French family asked him if he would be interested in being an au pair for them back in Australia, where they lived. I think he might take them up on the offer. And I have to admit he would be a great asset. But then I am his mother – so I would say that, wouldn’t I?
Imogen Stubbs was a guest of the Tanjong Jara Resort (www.tanjongjararesort.com; double rooms from MYR450/$144)